Disability | Natalie Burfitt [ANVIL vol 36 issue 1]

Natalie Burfitt on how the performance of liturgy can become an exercise in concealment, and where sacred places, by their very architecture, exclude and marginalise.
By Natalie Burfitt

My black patent brogues make a clear, sharp sound as I jog purposefully up the stone steps to the main entrance of the church. I’m here to conduct the baptism of a six-month-old boy. The baptism service is set for midday. I’ve been leading worship at another local church and this “out of usual hours” service is next on my mental tick list of tasks for the day. Inwardly, I’m gathering my depleted energies in readiness for being the person others will rely on to drive forward an event in which they are both deeply invested yet also the slightly bemused, passive recipients.

As I arrive, I’m warmly greeted by a few members of the congregation who are leaving after the 10 o’clock service. Some of them are clearing away disposable coffee cups and flask dispensers. The churchwarden is hurriedly filling the font that stands on its sharp-edged stone plinth in the area known by regular attenders as “the back of church”. This is a space without pews in to which one first enters the building, having made it up a further step and through a heavy wooden medieval castle-style door. This particular servant of the church has undertaken the office of churchwarden for nearly 20 years. She models robust practicality and nononsense efficiency. Her usual station is this part of the church, where she is regularly bustling about, making sure that proper order is maintained.

I exchange friendly but rapid greetings with departing church members. There’s a lot to do – various props to set out, clothing to be put on, greeting the family and friends of the baby who is being baptised. They arrive looking slightly unsure. The men wear slim-fitting suits and narrow ties. The women wear dresses in soft fabrics and high-heeled shoes. The child’s mum looks tense, her husband more relaxed, almost nonchalantly disengaged. There are older members of the family gathering too and I’m trying spot relational connections. I invite people to sit in the pews as I take to one side the four guests who are here as godparents to the boy. This is the first time I have met them and I’m anxious to give them a briefing. The time is about five minutes past midday.

Around 15 minutes in to the service, much of which is my voice instructing, explaining and reading, I catch sight of one family among the guests. They are a man and a woman with three sons in their early teens. The man is concentrating earnestly on me, the woman is in a wheelchair and the eldest of her sons is offering sign language to her. My mind momentarily switches to my meeting with the baby’s mum just a week ago. Our conversation covered faith, family history and practical arrangements for the service. It was mentioned that the parents of these three boys are both hearing impaired. A crushing recollection of this point returns to me. At that moment, I realise I’ve followed usual practice for this service and I’m not wearing a microphone. All the power and purpose that has propelled me forward through the morning thus far slumps to the floor like a several-sizestoo- large cassock that has been crudely attached but is suddenly undone.

At the end of the service I apologise to this couple, saying I’m sorry they have unnecessarily missed out. They are both generous and gracious, the man commenting as an aside, “All my life I’ve missed out.” I see them out of the building via an awkwardly narrow doorway that leads to a ramp.

Why did attending to the particular needs of this family fail to feature in my priorities? I think of Emily, a pale girl with severely cut dark hair and limited ability to socially interact. She was a student at the community special school where I helped with assemblies. Leavers’ destinations were listed at the end of year prize-giving. Most were heading to another institution. “Emily”, said the headteacher, “I don’t know where she’s going – I must find out.” Where did she go? Where do people with physical and mental disabilities feature in my everyday encounters? They don’t deliver my milk in the morning or teach at my children’s school. They aren’t my friends at dinner parties or playground pick-up time. Why doesn’t anyone challenge me about this, particularly the church?

After the baptism party had left the church building, I retreated to the vestry and wept. The following morning at staff meeting, I felt unable to share the depth of this encounter in the midst of busyness and practical process. It remained with me, emotionally affecting in a way that was both bruising and healing. I thought over my conversation with the husband and wife – how concerned they were for me, how kind. How the husband had offered to me something profound from his own experience that was more vivid than anything else that had occurred that morning. In their humility and compassion, I had met Christ. Yet I had been so caught up in ecclesial practices and status. I had taken it upon myself to bridge chasms of faith and understanding, the hurried, mildly patronising briefing I gave to the godparents being the excruciating pinnacle. In the midst of my concern to share baptism in to Christ, at a collision point between centuries of conflicted tradition and contemporary aspirations, he appeared to me in the brokenness of the church and its absorption of the prevailing culture that considers people with disability a low priority. [1]

This is the starting point for transformation: the brokenness of culture and the church’s unreflective incorporation of this prejudice. This bias is evident in the very fabric of church buildings, in the stone steps and narrow aisles, in the raised dais at the front clearly signalling that only those who are independently mobile can have a voice, can lead worship and preach, can speak of God to God’s people. The starting point isn’t the “brokenness” of those who are termed disabled. Brokenness, or weakness, is a key strand in Yong’s argument as he looks at Paul’s theology of weakness as one aspect of a scriptural basis for a disability – inclusive ecclesiology. [2] If church communities can be open to a critical examination of their own weakness in accepting attitudes to disability that marginalise, there is the possibility of change.

Who decides when microphones are used or not? Who tells Emily where she can go once schooling is completed and where she can’t? It’s a question of power. As I consider my responses to the people in these stories, I’m conscious of the privilege able-bodied power gives me to feel pity. Is my discomfort at the status quo driven by a desire to see everyone become “like me” in all things? Current theological perspectives on disability provide a helpful reframing of these motives. Jean Vanier writes on “the way of the heart”, a guiding principle that undoes priorities of achievement and competition to focus instead on relationship and mutuality. [3] His discovery is that in friendship and trust with those who are otherwise excluded, his own humanity is recovered and restored. [4] However, as McCloughry and Morris point out, we need to avoid a reductionist view of people with disability that sees them simply as “those ‘from whom we can learn’”. [5] The larger vision was hinted at in my experiences that revealed an instinctive awareness that something is wrong with the way we do things, that there is an injustice at work that limits the fullest expression of what it means to be human for all of us.

John Swinton articulates more specifically Vanier’s critique of culture that preferences individual striving for narrowly defined success and status, thus excluding not only those who are unable to be “productive” but also the fullest expression of what it is to be human. For Swinton, it’s about time. His analysis goes beyond “making things more inclusive”. It’s a helpful agenda, he proposes, but it doesn’t require us to relate to or ultimately love those being included. He argues that how we respond to disability is centred on how we perceive time since this will “tempt individuals, communities and cultures to demand certain tempos, rhythms, cadences, and timings as criteria for worth, value, meaningful participation, and belonging”. [6]

As I reflect on the baptism, I realise how much temporal language features in my description. Perhaps some of this urgency is the breathy compulsion of Mark’s Gospel – a pressing need to share the good news of Jesus Christ in as efficient a way as possible. Why else would you arrange the baptism of an infant at midday on a Sunday? A time when families with young children are usually presiding over nap or lunchtime. My experience in parish ministry indicates that other concerns are the driving force and they are more closely connected with an anxious desire to prove the value of the church’s existence, measured against the “busyness” rating that judges our worth.

If the church were to fully inhabit a countercultural confidence, we might discover what Swinton describes as “timefull” living. [7] Objections to such as a mode of living might identify the pressures of things to do, a sense of the inescapable in our structures. There’s a paradox here. We are both the powerful, the ones creating buildings and processes that exclude and marginalise, and the powerless, unable to free ourselves from slavish adherence to the “to-do list” functionality. If we ascribe power to God, and God’s enabling of us, we might recover a sense of the church’s capabilities to lead transformation. [8]

Revd Natalie Burfitt is a Church of England minister working in the Diocese of Gloucester. She is currently part of a pioneer project called OneLife that seeks to use sport and well-being as the point of community engagement. This ethnography is a reflection on her time in traditional parish ministry.

Email newsletter

To be notified when the next issue of Anvil is published, please sign up to our monthly Resources update using the button at the top right of the page.


[1] Amos Yong, The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2011), 10. In his introduction, Yong draws on the work of Kerry Wynn (who follows Rosemary Garland Thomson) in utilising the term “normate biases”. This identifies “the unexamined prejudices that non-disabled people have toward disability and toward people who have them. These assumptions function normatively so that the inferior status of people with disabilities is inscribed into our consciousness” (11).
[2] Yong, ibid, 82–116. Yong suggests that Paul’s insistence on weakness as the “platform for the manifestation of divine power” is a direct challenge to the normate bias that excludes people because of disability. He develops this Pauline perspective to include the imagery of the body with many parts and Paul’s challenge to the Corinthian church’s self-satisfied arrogance to instead view those who seem weaker as indispensable (1 Cor. 12:22). A disability hermeneutic of these passages suggests the church should be a place where those with disabilities are viewed as crucial to the healthy functioning of the whole, equally able to respond to the charism of God and to share those gifts.
[3] Jean Vanier, Becoming Human (CBC Massey Lectures Series) (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1998), 89. EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was written prior to recent news about Jean Vanier.
[4] Ibid., 100.
[5] Roy McCloughry and Wayne Morris, Making a World of Difference: Christian Reflections on Disability (London: SPCK, 2002), 30–31.
[6] John Swinton, Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship (Norwich: SCM Press, 2017), 11.
[7] Ibid., 87. He argues that our productivity view of time – and its closely related value speed – have lead us to an idolatrous view of our position in the world. God is both within and beyond time. Time is God’s creation and God is the master of time. “To try to master time is to try to master Jesus, and that can never end well” (64). Rather, living aware that time is God’s gift to us, we allow it to “shape and form our lives and communities in ways that will enable God’s people to participate faithfully in Jesus’ redemptive work in time” (64). We slow down, we engage in the gentleness of God that has time for others, no matter what their physical or cognitive capacities, and in this meeting are available to the work and presence of God.
[8] Stephen Sykes, Power and Christian Theology (London: Continuum, 2006), 27. “Christians came to believe that the Church to which they belonged… was an agent in the cosmic dramas which patterned the world.”

Back to all resources

    Sign up for monthly updates on new resources


    Cookie Configuration

    We use cookies on our website to ensure you have the best browsing experience. Read our Privacy Policy for more information.

    These cookies are necessary for the function of the website and cannot be disabled. They are used to save your preferences as you interact with our website, such as your cookie settings.

    These cookies allow us to measure traffic on our website. They help us to know which pages are popular and see how visitors move around the site. All information these cookies collect is aggregated and therefore anonymous.

    These cookies are required for some of the core functionality of the website. They are set by third party content providers, such as video players and maps. If disabled, these content providers will not be loaded.


    We use cookies on our website to ensure you have the best browsing experience. Read our Privacy Policy for more information.

    Configure Cookies Accept